Early-season La Liga review Part II
Jose Mourinho will likely battle Pep Guardiola for coach of the year recognition
Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso and Marcelo are player of the season candidates
David de Gea could be Atletico's best youth product since Fernando Torres
Previously, on SI.com ...
We reviewed this the 2009-2010 Spanish football awards, as presented by the sports daily Marca, and asked who will win them this season. Having started with the Pichichi and Zarra awards for the top overall scorer and top Spanish scorer, respectively, we then left you on a cliff hanger as we prepared to continue the rundown of potential winners, based on the opening weeks of the season, turning our attention to the best coach, referee and player. And the most sporting stars in Spain.
Oh, and John Locke found the hatch.
The award for the best goalkeeper is really an award for the best defense. Last season, unusually, it was for both: Barcelona defended well but Victor Valdés also made some stunning saves. The same might happen this season. Well, sort of. After years of heroic stops, barely plausible reactions and incredible agility, of being constantly shot at and keeping his side alive, the contradiction is that it looks likely to be the season in which Iker Casillas does virtually nothing -- he could have read War and Peace during Madrid's matches by now -- that he gets his hands on the Zamora for the first time in a decade. Jose Mourinho's arrival has put the emphasis on solidity -- and so far Madrid has conceded just two goals.
Also in the running is Atletico's young phenom, David de Gea (see below).
At the end of Real Madrid's match with Real Sociedad, Mourinho made a point of praising referee Mateu Lahoz -- one of the few refs in Spain to let the game flow, to not be won over by the mistaken assumption that giving fouls for every, tiny contact is the best way to "protect the spectacle." As Mourinho said, "It felt like an English game." That's not always a good thing. This time it was.
Hmm, not many candidates for this one ... unless your tongue is wedged firmly in your cheek. How about Levante for its match against Madrid, after which fullback Asier Del Horno admitted that his side had planned to wind Madrid up, break up the game and get under Madrid's skin? Or a joint award for Levante and for Mourinho himself who, in Sergio Ballesteros' words, "is a big mouth." Mourinho spent the game provoking and insulting Levante's players and screamed at Del Horno, "You never change!" as the fullback performed the kind of gamesmanship and sneaky tricks he had learned at Chelsea. Under a certain Mourinho. "I'm just glad that none of their players ended up in hospital; they were acting like they would," Mourinho said sarcastically. Actually, Jose, one of them did (Nacho González). And he'll be out of action for six months.
Real Madrid is entrusting everything to Mourinho, so he will surely be in line for the Miguel Muñoz if his club wins the title -- which is certainly not out of the question. Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola responded ironically to one question by saying: "Yes, it's true, I piss perfume," which is a pretty neat trick.
But stronger candidates should be found beyond the big two. At Villarreal, Juan Carlos Garrido is enjoying an excellent start to his first full season. Unai Emery has been forced to reconstruct Valencia without the two Davids -- Villa and Silva -- and has built a team more in his own image. Gregorio Manzano has to make Sevilla a genuine contender again, not just a Champions League chaser. And, having led Atlético to finally win something for the first time in 14 years, Quique Sanchez Flores now has to give it consistency. But the standout candidate so far has to be Esteban Vigo, who took his Hércules side to the Camp Nou and got a barely plausible 2-0 win. An entirely deserved, barely plausible 2-0 win, too.
Not for Real Madrid's Pedro León, that's for sure. When journalists kept asking Mourinho why he had left the winger out of his squad, he exploded: "You're talking about him as if he was [Diego] Maradona or [Zinedine] Zidane. ... Or [Alfredo] Di Stéfano. He's not. Five minutes ago he was playing for Getafe." Getafe fullback Mané replied by saying, "When [Leon] was here, he did play like Maradona or Zidane."
The players really playing like them so far include Lionel Messi who, despite missing a couple of games through injury, was extraordinary against Atlético (as was Gerard Piqué -- fast becoming the world's best footballing center back) at the Calderón and in the Champions League against Panathinaikos. Forwards Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi have stood out at Villarreal, but not as much as Borja Valero, the creative central midfielder who signed from Mallorca in the summer and has been superb -- even getting a Spain call-up. Then there's Santi Cazorla. Sadly left out of the World Cup-winning squad because of injury, he is back and better than ever.
Striker Fernando Llorente has impressed for Athletic Bilbao. Keep an eye out, too, for its young left back, Jon Aurtenetxe, who has been fantastic in his first few games. So has Llorente's former teammate Artiz Aduriz alongside Juan Mata at Valencia. Quick, skillful and with a lovely eye for a pass, Mata is showing signs of emerging from Silva's and Villa's shadow to be the current league leader's key player.
At Madrid, Ricardo Carvalho, Marcelo and especially Xabi Alonso have been outstanding. Quietly, Alonso is becoming Madrid's leader both on and off the pitch. There is a kind of silent strength about him, a moral authority. And his passing is not bad either.
But perhaps the one to most catch the eye so far this season has been Atlético Madrid goalkeeper David de Gea, the best player to emerge from its youth team since Fernando Torres and already an idol at the Calderón. Atlético lost to Barcelona 2-1, but if not for De Gea, it might have been seven goals allowed. Or eight. Against Valencia, much the same thing happened. Without its keeper, there is no way Atlético could have claimed a point. Alex Ferguson even missed a Manchester United game for only the third time since becoming manager 24 years ago to watch him play that match.
But if that sounds like an imminent departure, there's good news for Atlético fans. Doubly good news, in fact. "Why would I want to leave?" De Gea said. "it's more likely that Fernando Torres will come back than that I will leave. I'll be waiting right here for him."
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